Friday, May 22, 2015

Short Story Month 2015--Herman Melville, "Bartleby the Scrivener"


My students often had trouble with Melville's "Bartleby" because they could not understand why Bartleby acts the way he does; they also were not sure why the narrator doesn't throw him out immediately. Therefore, it might be best to tackle these two problems of motivation at the beginning. The story is difficult because it marks a transition between fabulistic stories, in which characters are two-dimensional representations, and realistic stories, in which they are presented "as-if" they were real. As a result, Bartleby seems to be a fabulistic character, while the narrator seems realistic. There is no way Bartleby can answer the question, "what is the matter with you?" because Bartleby has no matter; that is, he can only react as a two-dimensional representation of passive rebellion. 
The one place in the story when he comes closest to answering the question is when he has decided to do no more copying at all and the narrator asks him why.  Bartleby, standing looking out the window at the blank wall, says, "Can you not see the reason for yourself?"  The narrator, an "as-if-real" character thinks there is something wrong with Bartleby's eyes.  Bartleby, a two-dimensional figure, is referring to the metaphoric representation of his problem--the blank wall. However, it makes no sense to tell an "as-if-real" person that the reason one has decided to do nothing is because of a wall. To do so is to be accused of madness (as Bartleby indeed has been accused of), for it means to mistake a mere object in the world (the wall) for what one has taken the object to mean (meaninglessnes, nothingness, blankness, loneliness, isolation). 
Although the narrator cannot identify with Bartleby's metaphoric mistake, he feels the power of Bartleby's loneliness and need.  He knows that the only cure for Bartleby's isolation is brotherly love, but he is unable to grant that love on Bartleby's terms--that is, that he completely lose himself, give up everything.  For the metaphoric character, it is all or nothing at all; the "as-if-real" character, however, feels he must exist in the practical world.  Melville's story is ambiguous and mysterious because it deals with this most basic human need, and because, like Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown," it is both fabulistic and realistic at once.  The wall is a "dead letter" for Bartleby because it signifies "nothing," and "nothing" is that which he cannot bear.  Bartleby is a "dead letter" for the narrator, because, although he has intuitions about who or what Bartleby is, he cannot "go all the way" into that realm of madness, the metaphoric, and the sacred that Bartleby inhabits; he can only tell the story over and over, each time trying to understand.
By making "Fall of the House of Usher" and "Bartleby the Scrivener" the recollections of first-person narrators, Poe and Melville make the combination of romance/story conventions and the rules of realism explicit. Both Bartleby and Roderick seem to be more functions of the story than "as if" real characters.  Although our basic question about both is "what is the matter with them?" indeed they have no matter. One narrator says he cannot connect Usher's expression with any idea of simple humanity; the other says there is nothing ordinarily human about Bartleby.  One narrator continually reiterates his puzzlement and his failure to understand Usher; the other narrator continually tries to get Bartleby to follow the rules of common sense and common usage.  Instead of being caught within legend or allegory, as is Ichabod and Brown, both Usher and Bartleby are caught within that primary process phenomenon whereby they cannot distinguish between the map and the territory; they both make the metaphoric mistake of projecting their own subjectivity on to the external world and then responding to it as if it were external.             
In "Fall of the House of Usher," this mistake centers on Roderick as the ultimate romantic artist who desires to cut himself off from external reality and live within the realm of pure imagination, although he fears the loss of self such an ultimate gesture would inevitably entail.  His belief that the house has sentience because of the particular organization of its parts is a metaphor for the romantic aesthetic of organic unity. In a sense, Usher does live within the artwork, which is both the house and the obsession he has created.  Whereas the fabula of "The Fall of the House of Usher" is indeed Usher's aesthetic obsession, the discourse is the teller's account of the transformation of Usher into a figure of imagination who ultimately vanishes into pure subjectivity.
In "Bartleby," instead of a realistic character entering into the aesthetic realm of primary process, as is the case in "Usher," the movement is reversed, and an obsessed aesthetic figure invades the realm of secondary process reality, realistically represented as the practical and prudent world of the law office on wall street.  We can no more ask what is the matter with Bartleby than we can of Usher.  We cannot know what he is thinking, for he is thinking nothing; he simply is the obsessed embodiment of his own obsession.  For Bartleby, there is no distinction between the wall as signifier and the wall as signified; the wall is the reason he "prefers not to."  The only answer to the question of what the wall is and what it signifies is, or course, ironically, "nothing."  The wall is a dead letter to Bartleby, just as Bartleby himself becomes a dead letter to the narrator.  Again, whereas the fabula here is Bartleby's obsession, the discourse is the narrator's impossible attempt to recuperate a metaphoric figure into the realm of secondary process thinking.
The recollection of the "story" of Roderick and Bartleby by the two narrators makes possible in discourse what was not possible in the story itself. Although the story in each case focuses on the narrators trying to understand primary process figures by secondary process means, the discourse in each understands the figures in the only possible way to understand them--by rhetorical structure and by metaphor. What is "realistic" about such early short stories as "Fall of the House of Usher" and "Bartleby" is what Erich Heller says is new about nineteenth-century realism generally; that is, "the passion for understanding, the desire for rational appropriation, the driving force toward the expropriation of the mystery."  These two stories are dramatizations of just that effort at appropriation.
The problem is that the tellers, like Coleridge's Ancient Mariner at the beginning of the century and Conrad's Marlowe at the end, can only tell the story, are unable to reduce it to conceptual content; however, they can tell the story in such a way that makes it different from the mere story events--by narrating a story that in itself is about a character caught by the demands of discourse.   The short story is thus transformed into a tissue of repetitions, parallels, and metaphoric motif; that is to say, paradigmatic structure emerges out of the mere syntagmatic succession or sequence of events because the world of the story itself is seemingly determined by the obsession of the central, function-bound character. 

Mimetic characters, such as the narrators in these two stories, do not make a story realistic if the situations they confront evade their power to incorporate them within the expectations of the familiar, natural world.  The realistic impulse creates a realistic work only when the impulse succeeds in convincing the reader that the phenomenon described has been, or can be, naturally, socially or psychologically incorporated.  If the mystery is solved by placing the phenomena within the framework of the natural, the social, or the psychological, then the realistic succeeds. However,  if the knowledge arrived at is inchoate, metaphysical, aesthetic; that is, not satisfactorily solved by the natural, social, or psychological, the only resolution possible is an aesthetic one.  The thematized interrelationship between metonymic "as if" real characters and metaphoric "mythic" reality I have been outlining here has, in my opinion, characterized the  development of the short story up to the present day.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Short Story Month 2015--Mary Wilkins Freeman, "A New England Nun"


It is a giant geographical and emotional leap from Chopin's steamy passionate Louisiana to the cold and restrained New England world of Mary Wilkins Freeman's most famous story "A New England Nun." Mary Wilkins Freeman marks an advance over Jewett in terms of moving the story farther away from local color regionalism and closer to the tight thematic structure of Chekhov, James, and Anderson.  Very early, her impressionism was noted:  A reviewer in the London Spectator said about her stories.  "The stories are among the most remarkable feats of what we may call literary impressionism in our language, so powerful do they stamp on the reader's mind the image of the classes and individuals they portray without spending on the picture a single redundant word, a single superfluous word." Howells, however, said in a review of New England Nun and Other Stories in 1891, that he had a fear that she would like to write romantic stories.  Says she should write one and get it out of her system and then return "to the right exercise of a gift which is one of the most precious in fiction," that is an art in the "service of reality."
Indeed, what Freeman did was combine the detail of realism with the thematic patterning pioneered by Chekhov, Joyce, Turgenev, and Anderson. Consequently, as Edward Foster points out, the problem in trying to understand her stories is that we must combine seemingly incompatible generic terms.  "Miss Wilkins wrote local color stories of an inner feeling at once romantic, naturalistic, and symbolic and of a surface texture realistic and impressionistic."  "A New England Nun," her most famous story, a story that Perry Westbrook calls a perfect story, worthy of standing with the best of Chekhov or Mansfield, these conventions are combined in a quintessential way.  Moreover, the story embodies what Frank O'Connor has called the characteristic lonely voice of the short story, a characteristic that Arthur Machen noted in her stories as early as 1902, in a helpful comment that could characterize Sherwood Anderson's stories as well.  "I think the whole impression which one receives from these tales is one of loneliness, of isolation." Machen's point is that great literature is not generated by the drawing room, but by the expression of the "withdrawal of the soul; it is the endeavor of every age to return to the first age, to an age, if you like, of savages, when a man crept away to the rocks or to the forests that he might utter, all alone, the secrets of his own soul.... It is from this mood of lonely reverie and ecstasy that literature proceeds, and I think that the sense of all this is diffused through Miss Wilkins New England stories."
"A New England Nun" is in the tradition of Chekhov and Mansfield, although it was written before either.  The central character is a Jamesian figure shut away from the flow of everyday life.   Her stories combine the realistic and the impressionistic.  Note also the combination of romanticism and realism. Focus in "Nun" is Louisa's sense of what she considers almost "artistic" control over the order and neatness of her solitary home.  She rejects the masculine disorder of her impending marriage.  Compare this story with Mansfield's "Miss Brill"--being on the outside of life.  Story filled with imagery of her nun-like existence.  Edward Foster points out the characteristic short story conventions by noting many questions whose answers would have yielded real understanding are never raised in the story, e.g. what was the relationship between Louisa's mother and father?  what kind of love was she capable of when she and Joe were first engaged?  "It is easy to dismiss these questions," says Foster, "by noting that Miss Wilkins was contriving a short story and not a novel....It seems that 'A New England Nun' is a triumph not only of art but of reticence."  Indeed the same kind of reticence that later characterizes Anderson, Hemingway, and Carver.
The story opens with the atmosphere of the natural world being echoed within Louisa.  "There seemed to be a gentle stir arising over everything for the mere sake of subsidence--a very premonition of rest and hush and night."  This is good description of the structure of the story itself.  It is described in the next sentence:  "This soft diurnal commotion was over Louisa Ellis also."   She is described in terms of the "feminine appurtenances" around her, which from "long use and constant association, a very part of her personality."  (This is the metonymic connection of realism; she is the sum of the objects around her).  She is described in terms of adverbs, the way she does things--peacefully, carefully, precisely. She sets out her tea with "as much grace as if she had been a veritable guest to her own self."  And indeed, she is; she does things, but she is passive as well. She lives on sugared currants, sweet cakes and little white biscuits; eats salad in "delicate, pecking way" (identified with the bird in the cage in her house, the little yellow canary. She wears three aprons, one for eating, one for sewing, one for company--not for sexual protection, but for ordering and compartmentalizing, wearing appropriate uniform for each activity.
Joe Daggett fills the room (see this in Lawrence's "Horse-Dealer's Daughter").  They have nothing to say to each other. When he leaves, she brushes up his tracks and thus leaves no trace, so that she is left alone.  Joe is afraid he will put a clumsy foot through a "fairy web" and he knows she is always watching lest he should.  During the fourteen year absence, she had entered a path "so straight and unswerving that it could only meet a check at the grave, and so narrow that there was no room for any one at her side."  Narrator says this was a subtle happening that they were both too simple to understand--what is so subtle about it?  Is this the key to the story?
The winds of romance have another name for Joe, and for her the wind had never more than murmured. (She is not romantic; she is realistic, attention to detail.  Is this the ultimate end of realism--the life of Louisa; ironic if so, for the life of Louisa is a life ordered as the romantic artist saw life should be in the art work.  Work this out--wrong to think that order means sterility, just as wrong to think that idealism means lifeless. She worries about leaving her home, her "neat, maidenly possessions" are like the faces of old friends (again the metonymy image)  She makes aromatic essences in her little still and loves to sew a linen seam, not for "use" but for the "simple mild pleasure which she took in it."
"Louisa had almost the enthusiasm of an artist over the mere order and cleanliness of her solitary home."  She worries about the disorder of coarse masculine belongings strewn about in endless litter (note she is not concerned about Joe so much as she as about his things--metonymy) Caesar was a hermit of a dog, chained up for fourteen years for a sin in puppyhood.  "His reputation overshadowed him, so that he lost his own proper outlines and looked darkly vague and enormous."  She pictures him on the rampage through the village, seeing innocent children bleeding in his path. "she had great faith in his ferocity."
She overhears Lily and Joe, Lily has a masterful way that would  have "beseemed a princess." When Louisa and Joe part the next day she is like a queen "who, after fearing lest her domain be wrested away from her, sees it firmly insured in her possession." Now Caesar will never "go on a rampage through the unguarded village.  Now the little canary might turn itself into a peaceful yellow ball night after night, and have no need to wake and flutter with wild terror against its bars." (note the image of her and Caesar, not as an image of Joe, but an image of controlled libido) When Lily goes by Louisa feels no qualms, for if she had sold her birthright for a bowl of pottage, she did not know it for the taste of the pottage was so delicious.  "She gazed ahead through a long reach of future days strung together like pearls in a rosary, every one like the others, and all smooth and flawless and innocent, and her heart went up in thankfulness....Louisa sat, prayerfully numbering her days, like an uncloisterd nun."  The similarity between this ending, both in terms of imagery and in terms of theme, to Anderson's "Hands" is striking.



Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Kate Chopin's "Desiree's Baby"


Perhaps the most insistent indicator of the movement from local color to well-made story is the stories of Kate Chopin, who was more influenced by Maupassant's tightly unified stories than by the southern local colorists.  After reading Maupassant, Chopin wrote, "Here was life, not fiction; for where were the plots, the old-fashioned mechanism and stage trappings that in a vague, ununthinking way I had fancied were essential to the art of story making."  Claiming that Maupassant escaped authority and tradition and spoke in a direct and simple way, Chopin says, "I like to cherish the delusion that he has spoken to no one else do directly, so intimately as he does to me."
Of the over forty stories published in Bayou Folk 1894) and Night in Acadie (1897), some of the best-known are relatively simple formal stories that are very close to the anecdotal stories or O. Henry.  For example, "Madame Celestin's Divorce" is a simple story on the Maupassant mode about lawyer Paxton who advises Madame to divorce her drinking, wife-beating husband.  The lawyer thinks he will then marry her.  He falls into the habit of dreaming of taking a wife.  But she meets him on the street and tells him that her husband is home and has promised to turn over a new leaf. "La Belle Zoraide" is touching story about a servant who falls in love, but her mistress does not want to lose her.  When the servant has a child, the mistress sends it away and tells her it is dead.  Servant pines away, caring for a bundle of rags.  When the mistress brings the baby to her, she will have nothing to do with it and lives to be an old woman with her bundle of rags.
"Athenaise" is more thematically complex, about a woman who marries and then regrets it and goes home.  Does not hate husband.  "It's jus' being married that I detes' an' despise.  I hate being Mrs Cazeau, an' would wan to be Athenaise Miche again.  I can't stan' to live with a man; to have him always there; his coats an' pantaloons hanging in my room; his ugly bare feet--washing them in my tub, befo' my very eyes, ugh!"  She goes back to him when she knows she is pregnant.  Also, more powerful and complex is "The Storm, about Bobinot and Calixta, and Alcee who comes and has sex with Calixta while Bobinot is in town and there is a storm. "When he touched her breasts they gave themselves up in quivering ecstasy, inviting his lips.  Her mouth was a fountain of delight.  And when he possessed her, they seemed to swoon together at the very borderland of life's mystery." At the end everyone is happy.  "So the storm passed and every one was happy."  Both her husband and his wife are content not knowing.
Chopin's best-known and most successful story is "Desiree's Baby," for in it the formal structure of the story and its Maupassant-like reverse ending is made more complex by the importance of the social issue on which it depends.  This was Chopin's most successful story during her lifetime and remains her most famous story, receiving renewed attention since the advent of feminist criticism.  However, many recent critics feel they must apologize for or justify the story's trick ending, for it suggests Chopin's most important literary forefather, Guy de Maupassant.  Emily Toth claims that Chopin goes beyond the Maupassant convention; Peggy Skaggs says that the ending is more complex and more revelatory of Chopin's view of life than it may at first seem; and Cynthia Griffin Wolff is only willing to compare Chopin's vision to Maupassant's by  claiming that both focus on the "inescapable fact that even our most vital moments must be experienced on the boundary--always threatening to slip away from us into something else, into some dark, undefined contingency."
The story begins with the introduction of Désirée with a baby, which motivates a return to the past and the reader's introduction to Désirée herself as a baby and thus the central mystery of her origin.  There is really no reason for Désirée to be a foundling in this story except to provide the mystery of her parentage and thus to throw a shadow over her own child's ancestry.  The motif of "shadow" introduces the story's most significant pattern.  Désirée is not only found in the "shadow" of a big stone pillar, but eighteen years later while lying asleep in that same shadow--as if she has never moved--she is seen by Armand (the prince in this abortive fairy tale) who falls in love with her, "as if struck by a pistol shot."
The importance of paternal names is introduced very early, for Armand does not care that Désirée is nameless (The name her foster mother has given her suggests that simply she was desired), for this means he can all the more easily impose his own family name--one of the oldest and proudest in Mississippi--on her when they marry.  And indeed Désirée says Armand is particularly proud that the child is a boy who will bear his name.  Armand's home shows little of the softness of a woman, suggesting instead the strictness of a male monastic life, with the roof coming down steep and black like a cowl and with big solemn oaks whose branches shadow the house like a pall.  The "shadow" metaphor is further emphasized by Désirée's growing suspicion that there is some air of mystery about the house and by her efforts to "penetrate the threatening mist" about her.

Like "Cask of Amontillado," "The Cop and the Anthem," and "Tennessee's Partner," Chopin's story is structured to illustrate a point or lay bare a hidden truth, rather than to "realistically" present events motivated by "as-if" real characters.  "Désirée's Baby" may seem more important or serious than the stories of Poe, O. Henry, and Harte because of its socially significant themes of racism and sexism, but its narrative structure may be no more complex.  Still, you might want students to compare these stories in terms of their ironic patterning and the relative complexity of their themes.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Deborah Eisenberg Wins the 2015 PEN/Malamud Award


It has just been announced that Deborah Eisenberg has won the 2015 PEN/Malamud award for excellence in short fiction. She won the Rea Award in 2000 for her mastery of the short story form. Her Collected Stories, which was published in 2010,  includes stories from four earlier collections:  Transactions in a Foreign Currency (1986), Under the 82nd Airborne (1992), All Around Atlantis (1997), and Twilight of the Superheroes (2007). 

The short story’s lack of room to ruminate about so-called “big”socio-political  issues is one reason the form is not popular with so-called “serious” critics who prefer genres that generalize. The kind of complexity that fascinates masters of the short story is not captured by using more and more words but by using just the right ones. Good stories, like good poems, don’t pontificate.

The best stories in Eisenberg's collection Twilight of the Superheroes (2007) reflect her continuing conscientious effort to provide a structure and a syntax for feelings unspeakable until just the right rhythm makes what was loose and lying around inside clench and cluster into a meaningful pattern.

In “Some Other, Better Otto,” the central character is so self-negating, so full of doubt and dubiousness that you just want to smack him.  But you know he can’t help it, that of all his possible selves he cannot quite seem to find that other, better one that would make his life full and complete. However, what great short story writers like Eisenberg wisely know is that there is no unified self, only rare moments of recognition, evanescent contacts of communication. 

South African writer Nadine Gordimer once said that the novel is often bound to a consistency that does not convey the true quality of human life, “where contact is more like the flash of fireflies.”  Short-story writers, Gordimer says, “see by the light of the flash; theirs is the art of the only thing one can be sure of—the present moment.”

In “Like It or Not,” a divorced Midwestern high school biology teacher visits a sophisticated friend in Italy and is expertly guided about by a polished and knowledgeable European man.  Like a delicate Jamesian romance, nothing much happens but much is immanent.  It's not just that the man feels he is getting older or that the woman feels insecurely empty, but, rather, as the man tells a young woman they encounter in a hotel, “It’s quite mysterious, what attracts one human being to another.”  

This is the kind of mystery that great short-story writers, such as Chekhov, have always struggled with.  As the central character of his brilliant story “Lady with the Pet Dog” inchoately understands, people have two lives, one open and known by all who cared to know, and another life, running its course in secret.

However, when Eisenberg veers away from the secret flashes and mysterious motivations that the short story captures so delicately and moves toward the socio-political generality of the novel, she lapses into generalities.

In the title story, four young people live in a kind of “holding pattern” in a luxurious apartment in New York City.  One of them draws a comic strip entitled Passivityman about a superhero indifferent to “Captain Corporation who tightens his Net of Evil around The Planet Earth.”  Having lost the superpowers of their youth, they are witness to the terrorist attack on the twin towers and somehow their private lives are absorbed by the “arid wasteland of policy and strategy” and the story evaporates into abstraction and rumination.


            Eisenberg is indeed a master of the short story.  She succeeds much more often than she fails because she brilliantly exploits what the form does best.  It’s only when she seems to be seduced by the public demand for the novelistic that she breaks faith with the great masters who have preceded her, like the namesake of the award she has most deservedly just won.

Short-Story Month 2015--Aldrich, "Marjorie Daw" and Stockton, "Lady or the Tiger"

What makes Thomas Bailey Aldrich's famous story, "Marjorie Daw" work is the letter technique.  Letters between Delaney and Fleming who broke his leg tell the story.  Thematically, the story depends on the device that Alfred Hitchcock in the famous movie "Rear Window".  The issue is the same--when one is immobile and cannot "reality check" a fiction, then one has no choice but to take the fiction as reality.  Moreover, when one is dependent on the reportage of one person, who is obviously free to create out of the imagination something unreal, one is caught in the fiction.  This same sort of thing happens today on the Internet.
The first letter is from the doctor:  It is a nice irony that Fleming has twenty-seven volumes of Balzac, mainly to throw at his serving man, a sly joke about the main use of the novel. Delaney apologizes that he has nothing to write since he is living out in the country with no one around.  He says he wishes he were a novelist so he could write him a "summer romance," like Turgenev.  He then says "Picture to yourself..." and beings a description of the house across the road, and puts it in present tense--"a young woman appears on the piazza with some mysterious Penelope web of embroidery in her hand, or a book.  There is a hammock over there--of pineapple fiber, it looks from here.  A hammock is very becoming when one is eighteen and has golden hair, and dark eyes, and an emerald-colored illusion dress looped up after the fashion of a Dresden china shepherdess....But enough of this nonsense..."
Although the description begins generally, it is enough to catch Flemming and he writes back wanting to know more about the little girl in the hammock.  Tells him he has "a graphic descriptive touch."  Delaney write back "There is literally nothing here--except the little girl over the way."  He begins to create a family for her and a name--Marjorie Daw coincidences:  He says "how oddly things fall out!" for just as he describes perhaps meeting her he says he is called downstairs and her father is there with an invitation.  He then describes sitting with her--"It was like seeing a picture to see Miss Marjorie hovering around the old soldier...."
He says he tells her about him and she asks questions about him. "I think I made her like you!"  He describes her as a beauty without affectation and her father a noble character.  Flemming writes back to say:  "You seem to be describing a woman I have known in some previous state of existence, or dreamed of in this."  He says if he saw a photo of her he would recognize her at once.  He says her manner and traits and appearance are all familiar to him.  Delaney says to say she is not his type, but says if they were on a desert island--"let me suggest a tropical island, for it costs no more to be picturesque"--he would be like a sister to her. [Note all the references to story telling]
Delaney says:  "Is this not the oddest thing in the world?" (referring to Marjorie's interest in Flemming), then says, no the oddest the overall effect.  "The effect which you tell me was produced on you by my casual mention of an unknown girl swinging in a hammock is certainly as strange." He writes again, and now the letters are all from Delaney to Flemming, in which Delaney refers to the letters from Flemming. Why do Flemming's letter's disappear from the exchange?  "Do you mean to say that you are seriously half in love with a woman whom you have never seen--with a shadow, a chimera? for what else can Miss Daw be to you?  I do not understand it at all."  (The convention here is that he is a lawyer and not a romantic)  He says Fleming and Daw are like ethereal spirits and he is Caliban (Another clue to the made-up nature of the story--The Tempest--he is not Caliban, but Prospero, who creates a world.  "When you do come to know her, she will fall far short of your ideal, and you will not care for her in the least."
Later letter, he writes to say Daw loves Jack also, and comments on the "strangeness of the whole business."  He says he has lost the faculty of being surprised "I accept things as people do in dreams."  When Flemming says he wants to write to Daw, Delaney says:  "She knows you only through me; you are to her an abstraction, a figure in a dream--a dream from which the faintest shock would awaken her."  "Do you not see that, every hour you remain away, Marjorie's glamour deepens, and your influence over her increases?" When Flemming talks of coming there, he puts him off and make sup story about the father wanting her to be with another suitor.  The letters become increasing urgent and short.  "Stay where you are.  You would only complicate matters."  When Flemming says he must see her, the letters stop and we have the only narrative, which provides the opportunity for the last letter.  Delaney goes to Boston.
The last letter: He is filled with horror and regret at what he has done.  Says he just wanted to make a little romance to interest him and did it all too well.  "There isn't any colonial mansion on the other side of the road, there isn't any piazza, there isn't any hammock--there isn't any Marjorie Daw!"  Wonderful ending--A classic story about the power of story to create a sense of reality.  This is a story that moves from the old romantic story of the supernatural, mystical woman (Diamond Lens and the Gautier story.
Ostensibly "The Lady or the Tiger" is a story about justice, that is, the only kind of justice possible in fiction--poetic justice.  The end of the game played by the semibarbaric king has only two alternatives, and they are quite purposely the conventional alternative endings of comedy or tragedy--marriage or death.  The fact that this particular story "ends" before it ends, giving the reader the freedom to choose a conclusion, is a game on Stockton's part to exploit the reader's need to "close" a story, to see true justice enacted.  Stockton urges readers to close the story not by choosing what they want to come out of the doors, but rather in the way readers always achieve closure--by looking back at the plot, the tone, and the thematic motifs to determine the story's thematic "end." 
Since the story makes quite clear that the semibarbaric nature of the princess consists of her being both lady-like and tigerish, what readers are really asked to decide is which aspect of the princess dominates at the end--her lady side or her tiger side.  Because the presentation of what goes on the princess' mind makes quite clear which side that is, the reader is not so free to choose as it first appears.             
The story is most interesting for its focus on the reader's need for closure.  For even though the story leaves little doubt that the tiger pounces out at the end (for the princess has more tiger in her personality than lady), most readers feel somehow tricked or cheated that the author leaves the final choice ostensibly open. This is a story that constantly refers to the storyteller who is in the position of being aware of the reader and how he is responding. 
 "The Lady or the Tiger" is a story about justice, but about the only kind of justice possible in art, that is, poetic justice.  The end of the game played by the semibarbaric king, the game of the arena has only two alternatives, and they are quite purposely the conventional endings of long narrative--depending on whether they are primarily tragic or comic--that is, marriage or death.  The fact that in this particular story, the story "ends" before it ends, and the reader is explicitly made to choose an ending is a game on Stockton's part to exploit the reader's need to "close" a story, to see true justice performed. 

The story is our most famous "open" story, or at least it pretends to be open.  However, the reader is compelled to close it not by choosing arbitrarily by rather in the way he or she always closes a story, that is, by looking back at the plot, the tone, the motifs and determining which came out--the lady or the tiger.  For the story makes quite clear that the semibarbaric nature of the princess consists of her being both lady like and tigerish.   What we really need to close the story off is to determine which aspect of the princess dominates--her lady side or tiger side.  The story makes quite clear which side that is.  Thus, we close the story in all its openness by determining the pattern and tone of the story.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Short Story Month 2015--Ambrose Bierce, "Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge"

While the main trend of the short story in the late nineteenth century was regionalism moving toward realism, naturalism and ultimately impressionism, another persistent trend was the trend toward the well-made story of Poe, as well as that romantic gothicism typical of Poe.  The primary proponent of the latter was Ambrose Bierce, whereas the best examples of the former are Thomas Bailey Aldrich, Frank Stockton, Fitz-James O'Brien, and, of course, O. Henry.
Critics who have accused Ambrose Bierce of artificiality and lack of depth usually make such claims based on expectations derived from the realistic novel.  Marcus Cunliffe says Bierce manipulates stock characters to demonstrate a theorem (249) and Warner Berthoff that his stories are not usually interesting because they are like mathematical equations.  Of course, since the short story has always been more dependent on pattern than plausibility and plot, such criticisms amount to scorn for the short story because it isn't a novel. 
 By insisting on a faithful adherence to the external world, advocates of realism allow content, often ragged and random, to dictate form.  As a result, the novel, which can expand to better create an illusion of everyday reality, is the favored form of the realists, while the short story, which requires more artifice and patterning, assumes a secondary role.  Poe and Hawthorne knew this difference between the two forms well and consequently by means of a tightly controlled form created a self-sustained moral and aesthetic universe in their stories.  Those writers of the latter part of the nineteenth century who were committed to the short story instead of the novel were also well aware of this fact. 
When Ambrose Bierce entered into the argument raging between the romantics and the realists, he attacked the William Dean Howells school of realistic fiction by arguing that to them, "nothing is probable outside the narrow domain of the commonplace man's most commonplace experience.  It is not known to them that all men and women sometimes, many men and women frequently, and some men and women habitually, act from impenetrable motives and in a way that is consonant with nothing in their lives, characters and conditions."
The short story's focus on mysteriously motivated or seemingly unmotivated behavior is at least as old as Poe's exploration of the perverse in "The Imp of the Perverse" and "The Black Cat" and as recent as Raymond Carver's presentation of characters, who, scolds John W. Aldridge, are "impulsive and arbitrary"; and "contingency," snorts Aldridge, "is an impotent substitute for motive in fiction." While Carver is accused of arbitrariness, Bierce is accused of improbability.  But Bierce says that the capable writer does not give probability a moment's attention, except to make the fiction seem probable or true in the reading process.  Nothing is as improbable as what is true, says Bierce; the unexpected does occur, "but that is not saying enough; it is also the unlikely--one might almost say the impossible." 
Flannery O'Connor, who places herself within the romance tradition that Bierce affirmed, has agreed; echoing Goethe's claim for short fiction at the beginning of the nineteenth century, she says, it is the task of the short story writer to make "alive some experience which we are not accustomed to observe everyday or which the ordinary man may never experience in his ordinary life.."  Bierce's characters, like those of O'Connor's, have an inner coherence rather than a coherence to their social framework.  As O'Connor says, "Their fictional qualities lean away from typical social patterns, towards mystery and the unexpected."  As Stuart C. Woodruff notes in his study, Bierce's characters "lack an identity apart from the circumstances they are exposed to."  In other words, Bierce's short stories deal with those moments when people act in such a way that even those closest to them cannot understand what motivated them, when they act in a way that, based on their social context and historical background, may be counter to everything expected of them.  These are the moments Bierce is interested in, and indeed, these are the moments the short story as a form has always been interested in.
More recent critics of have a better understanding of  Bierce's use of typical short story conventions.  Mary Elizabeth Granader, who understands Bierce's reasons for favoring the short story, says that for Bierce, the most critical human actions "are motivated at those junctures when the soul is stripped naked and, for better or worse, stands alone." Such a juncture has frequently been identified as typical of the short story genre. Elizabeth Bowen and Frank O'Connor have suggested that it is generically typically of the short story to emphasize loneliness and to place characters "on that stage which, inwardly, every man is conscious of occupying alone." Joseph R. Brazil is right to point out that for Bierce the culturally-bound external world championed by Howells' realism was accidental and transient, whereas the world of desire and fear, the world always capture by the romance form, is governed by hidden laws and is therefore essential and permanent.
Bierce's most obsessive concern in the short story is not simple macabre horror, but rather the central paradox that underlies the most basic human desire and fear--the desire for a sense of unity and significance and the fear that the realization of such a desire meant death.  In terms of story-telling, Bierce knew that the desire manifested itself as the desire to present life as if it were a fictional construct, that is, as if it had significance and meaning, beauty and order.  Cathy Davidson has come closest of all Bierce critics to understanding this basic quality, although she fails to identify it as a characteristic short story convention. 
Claiming Bierce as "an impressionistic, surrealistic, philosophic, postmodernist fictionalizer," Davidson says his stories turn on a crisis that tests the protagonist's perceptual processes, consequently, blurring  distinctions between such categories as "knowledge, emotion, language, and behavio.r  Comparing him with Cortazar, Akutagawa, and Borges, Davidson claims that by confounding such categories as reason and superstition, reality and art, and reader and writer, Bierce's fiction "is a mirror held up to consciousness" rather than to nature.
Bierce's characteristic short story dynamics is to distance his characters from the ordinary world of everyday reality--by presenting them in a static formal posture or picture, by putting them in a dream-like autistic state, by putting them on a formal stage.  In order to achieve this, time is distorted, for time is the most obvious sense of things happening in the real world; and time, which is the crucial necessity of the novel, is not necessary for the short story.  As E. M. Forster and C.S. Lewis have reminded us, narrative cannot do without time, but it certainly can more easily do without it in the short story than in the novel, a form that focuses more on moments than on lives.  When this formal picture or frozen sense of reality is broken, the result is often the shock of entering another country, another realm of reality; the result is disillusion, despair, or death. 
 Bierce's most famous narrative play with the frozen moment of time and the power of imaginative reality is "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge."  Purely a story of technique; the "content" of "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" is a pretext for a game Bierce plays with the conventions of narrative endings.  The story explicitly and sardonically exploits the idea of the reader (and the protagonist) being pulled up short as Peyton Farquhar comes to the end of his rope and faces the ultimate and only genuine "natural end" possible--death.  However, in this story death is forestalled in the only way it can be forestalled--through an act of the imagination and an elaborate bit of fiction-making which the reader initially takes to be actuality. 
The story is made up of three sections which correspond to three fictional elements--static scene, exposition, and action.  But all of these elements are self-consciously ironic in presentation and thus undermine themselves.  The first part of the story, the only part in which the realistic convention suggests that something is "actually happening," seems quite dead and static, almost a still picture, highly formalized and stiff.  At the end of Part I, the teller tips the reader off to the play with time that the story, because it is discourse rather than mere event, must inevitably make:  "As these thoughts, which have here to be set down in words, were flashed into the doomed man's brain rather than evolved from it the captain nodded to the sergeant.  The sergeant stepped aside."  The self-reflexive reference here is to the most notorious characteristic of fiction --the impossibility of escaping time. In spite of the fact that the author wishes to communicate that which is instantaneous or timeless he is trapped by the time-bound nature of words that can only be told one after another.  It is this purely rhetorical acceptance of the nature of discourse that justifies or motivates the final fantastic section of the story.
The second play with the convention of time in the story is the insertion at the end of Part I, purely and perversely by the demand of discourse rather than by the demand of existential event, of a bit of exposition which tells the reader who the protagonist is and what he is doing in such a predicament.  The reader sits patiently through this background formality while the protagonist plummets into Part III of the story--which itself is of course a depiction of that which does not happen at all except in the flash (which can only be recounted in words) that takes place in the protagonist's mind. It is thus only because of discourse that Farquhar's invention of his escape from hanging, drowning, and death by guns and cannons makes the reader believe that the escape is taking place in reality.  At the conclusion, when the protagonist reaches the end of the fall, the verb tense of the story abruptly shifts from present to the ultimate past tense:  "Peyton Farquhar was dead."  At this point, the reader is forced to double back to look at the tone and details of the story which created this forestalling of the end--a forestalling which is indeed the story itself, for without it there would have been no story.  Postponing the end until the ultimate and inescapable end of death is the subject of Bierce's self-conscious and self-reflexive discourse. 
Thus rather than being a cheap trick dependent on a shocking ending, "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" is a complex narrative reflecting both in its theme and its technique the essential truth that in discourse there is no ending but an imaginative, that is, an artificial, one.







Sunday, May 17, 2015

Short Story Month:2015--Bret Harte, "The Luck of Roaring Camp"


One mark of the short story's disreputable image as an art form is that Bret Harte, whose stories have been scorned as the work of a literary, is often cited by literary historians as one of the most important influences on the form's development.  Noting that Harte was a skillful but not a profound writer, who just happened to be in the right place at the right time, Wallace Stegner says that no historian of the short story can overlook his shaping influence on the form.  Indeed such early historians of the form as H. S. Canby and Fred Lewis Pattee agree that Harte is second only to Washington Irving in his influence on the American short story.  Although Pattee says Harte's "influence was far greater than the quality of his work entitled him to exert," he lists six distinctive contributions he made to the form:  atmosphere of locality, new Western humor, paradox and antithesis, individualized types, impressionism, and a self-conscious sense of technique.  Edward O'Brien says: "Harte is far from being the greatest of American story writers, but he is probably the most representative of the characteristic qualities and weaknesses, and historically he may prove to have been our most influential man."
Such judgments do little to encourage taking another look at Bret Harte's stories.  However, H. S. Canby was reluctant to consign Harte to the ash heap of history.  After dutifully pointing out Harte's sentimentalism and the stereotyped nature of his characters, Canby asked, somewhat plaintively: "What gives these characters their lasting power?  Why does that highly melodramatic tragedy in the hills above Poker Flat, with its stagy reformations, and contrasts of black sinner and white innocent, hold you spell-bound at the thirtieth as at the first reading?" 
Harte poses a particular problem for the conflict between realism and romance that beset narrative fiction in America in the latter part of the century.  For if his stories were not based on reality, what made people think they were?  The question becomes, what kind of reality do Harte's plots and characters refer to?   Harte once said he aimed to be the Washington Irving of the Pacific coast.  And indeed his stories are closely related to the folklore of a region, much as Irving's "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" are rooted in the cultural transition from the old Dutch settlers to the establishment of New York.
 However, Harte differs from Irving in that his characters derive not from European folklore stories, but rather seemingly from actuality.  Thus, for Harte to create a mythic world in California, he could not rely on received tales, but must rather find the materials to create his own.  Harte's creation of the stuff of fable in the world of fact helps explain how local color formed the roots of the realistic movement.  Harte is a realist in that he tries to create the illusion that the events in his stories could actually happen and that the characters are as-if-real, rather than that the events were derived from folklore as they are in the stories of Irving or that the characters are the figures of parable, as they are in the stories of Hawthorne. 
This grounding of characters and events in a specific regional area creates the illusion of realism often attributed to Harte. By presenting burly and coarse‑talking miners as gentle father-figures, hard and brittle gamblers as philosophical Hamlets, and gaudily‑painted prostitutes as self-sacrificing martyrs, Harte tried to show that beneath the surface of one's external persona lie unexamined depths when a crisis or a novel situation arises to stimulate them.  It may be in Harte's hands a crude kind of psychology, but it is the same convention that Chekhov and Joyce use later with much more subtlety and success, when the secret life of the protagonist of "Lady with the Pet Dog" is felt to be more real than the life he lives as a social persona in the world.  The reason this has always been a part of the short story convention derives from its romance source, which, as Northrop Frye has said, focuses more on character as psychic projection and idealization, rather than social persona.
Fred Lewis Pattee knew that Harte's language and characters are drawn from his knowledge of books, not his knowledge of life, pointing out the influence of Washington Irving on Harte's narrator voice and the influence of Charles Dickens on his creation of character.  Pattee calls attention to Harte's apprenticeship in writing parodies and travesties: "For the student of Harte, Condensed Novels has a value altogether out of proportion to its own worth. It is the leading document for one who would trace all the elements in the evolution of the Bret Harte short story."  By writing travesties of Dumas and others he had learned the secrets of paradox, antithesis, lightness of touch, the epigrammatic ending.  Pattee also notes that the secret of Harte's creation of character is that he learned from Dickens the art of "creating what in reality is a realm of Munchausen, and then, miracle of miracles, of actually breathing into it the breath of life." 
Pattee makes a good point about the short story in general. One critic noted that when reading a Raymond Carver story, one feels that one is in a model kitchen at Sears, for even as things look real, there is something curiously unreal about the objects that surround us.  E.T.A. Hoffman realized before Harte that when placed inside worlds that seemed to be real, projective characters acted curiously like automatons and curiously real at once.  Bartleby is just such a character. Harte's characters are not real people, but rather puppets acting as if they were real.  Kleist dealt with the same realization.  In Harte, we have characters striving to be more real than the characters in the stories of Hawthorne by being placed in what many readers took to be the real world of California.
Another important aspect of Harte's mastery of the short story form is the fact that what holds a Harte story together is not plot but theme. "The Luck of Roaring Camp" is a clear example.  In the first three paragraphs, the reader is introduced to the central themes: the all male world, the men acting as one, and the novel nature of a birth in a place where death is more common (an obvious thematic presage of the story's conclusion).  Also introduced in the opening paragraphs is the voice of the story--not the voice of the inhabitants of Roaring Camp, but of an educated observer.  If one asks where this observer is standing to describe the goings on of the story, one is closer to the truth if one sees him in a theater watching a melodrama rather than in the town watching the inhabitants. 
As a result of this sense of melodrama conventions, the characters are stereotyped and the landscape is stylized.  The addition of a narrative voice to the stage play creates a tension not previously present.  In spite of the fact that the story is aiming toward death, the opening birth scenes are inevitably comic, for as the single woman of the camp labors within, the whole camp sits outside and collectively smokes like expectant fathers.  Since anyone could be the father, all are the father of the child.   Harte foregrounds this comic nature of town unity by pointing out that although the individuals may be fragmentary, lacking fingers, toes, ears, etc, they constitute an "aggregate force."  And lest one judge the individual by his appearance, the gambler has a Raphael face and the intellectual abstraction of a Hamlet, while the strongest man has only three fingers on his right hand and the best shot only has one eye. When the baby cries out, they all rise to their feet "as one man."
The surface theme of the story is, of course, the regeneration of Roaring Camp; however, it is not the child who achieves this, but rather the men playing the roles of women. This most sentimental of all Harte stories is not without its humor, and like "Tennessee's Partner" makes an obvious reference to the kind of humor on which it depends.  Although the men plan a broad burlesque of the christening of the child, complete with a mock godfather, Stumpy stops it, claiming his own right for that position.  "To the credit of all humorists be it said that the first man to acknowledge its justice was the satirist thus stopped of his fun."  Thus the christening proceeds seriously, which, the narrator says, make sit all the more ludicrous than the satirist had planned.  Also comic is the notion of "pastoral happiness" set up by the British sailor singing all ninety stanzas of a sea chantey as a lullaby.  "Such was the golden summer of Roaring Camp."
However, the idyll can only work if perpetuated in a world of men around the baby, bringing it up much as wolves bring up a lost child.  When there is talk by some of civilizing the town by bringing in women and families, the threat to the idyll is obvious.  And Harte makes it clear that the story cannot end that way but that something must prevent the loss of the idyll.  The child, the center of the transformation of the men, must be preserved in the only way mythic creatures can, by being made into a holy icon.  Thus, "The minority meekly yielded in the hope that something might turn up to prevent it.  And it did." The story ends with the mighty storm, like the destruction of the earth by flood in which the camp that formerly roared with male bawdiness, now roars with the flood that washes all in front of it. 

What makes Harte so influential is the fact that his stories nicely illustrate the short story's focus on thematic meaning, on the voice of the narrator, and on the reversal of surface reality.  Things are not as they appear, says the short story.  Sentiment is always tempered by humor in the stories.  Humor is the controlling factor that holds in the sentiment.